They covered death when Mr. Hooper died. They introduced divorce when Abby talked about her parents living in different houses. They addressed prejudice when Gulliver wouldn’t play with Snuffy because he was raised to believe that “birds only play with birds.” And now, Sesame Street, our timeless American classic that has aired for nearly 50 years, has done it again. They have introduced a new character who will teach kids about an important topic: Autism.
Her name is Julia — a lovable, red-haired muppet who, just like 1 in 68 American children, happens to be on the autism spectrum.
According to Autism Speaks, Autism Spectrum Disorder “refers to a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences.” And considering some 3.5 million people live with autism in the U.S. alone, there is clearly a growing need to address the topic with all of our kids.
Ask anyone raising a child with autism or on the spectrum personally, and they will likely agree that each case is unique. Because of this, Sesame Street producers had quite a challenge ahead of them in creating Julia.
As Christine Ferraro, writer for Sesame Street for 25 years, told CBS News’ 60 Minutes, “It’s tricky because autism is not one thing … it is different for every single person who has autism. There is an expression that goes, ‘If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.’”
According to Ferraro, she and her team wanted to “normalize” autism on the show and have the audience get to know Julia as just Julia, a new muppet on the street — not “Julia, the character with autism.” Through working with autism organizations and various child specialists, they decided to have Julia exemplify more common characteristics of those on the spectrum — sometimes not responding when spoken to, flapping her hands when upset, and being bothered by sudden noises.
But to meet their goal of having Julia accepted as one of the gang, the team also committed to teaching kids how to play with her. For example, one of Julia’s behaviors is to jump up and down, which is common among kids on the spectrum. Rather than thinking this odd, her new friends on Sesame Street make it a game. Abby says “You’re bouncing like a rubber ball!” and the characters all end up playing “boing tag” and bouncing with Julia.
Sesame Street is unique in comparison to other children’s shows because it includes an invisible cast of characters — the puppeteers. Each muppet has his or her own puppeteer who has helped develop that personality on screen. It’s because of the talents and dedication of those behind the scenes that we have characters like Elmo and Abby, who so many know and love. And perhaps the puppeteer with the closest connection to his or her muppet is Stacey Gordon, who plays the role of Julia. Gordon knows first-hand what it’s like living in Julia’s world, because her own son has autism.
Gordon tells CBS that she was able to channel her personal experience when doing scenes where Julia was upset by loud noises, as that’s a particular challenge her son has. She continues:
“Had my son’s friends been exposed to his behaviors through something that they had seen on TV before they experienced them in the classroom, they might not have been frightened. They might not have been worried when he cried. They would have known that he plays in a different way and that that’s OK.”
Christine Ferraro and the rest of the Sesame Street crew would like to see Julia as a regular character in order to further the normalization of autism. And it sounds like the other muppets on Sesame Street agree: When Big Bird says “I’d like to be friends with Julia too” in one of the show’s new promos, an enthusiastic Elmo adds, “She’s really special to us.”
It’s clear that Julia certainly is very special — and I for one can’t wait to see more of her.